History never repeats, right? Longtime Forteans will remember well the tragic Heaven's Gate cult, in which members committed mass suicide in 1997, hoping to release their souls so that they could travel to an alien spacecraft that was said to be accompanying Comet Hale–Bopp. Well, with the impending arrival of the much-anticipated Comet ISON, a number of websites have gone into overdrive (e.g. this one) claiming that the new comet is accompanied by...alien spacecraft.
Thankfully, NBC science reporter Alan Boyle has set the record straight over at his Cosmic Log blog:
It all started with a series of images captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 UVIS instrument on April 30. Various exposures were combined to produce a widely distributed color picture of Comet ISON against a background field of stars. When Internet sleuths took a close look at the archived image, it looked as if there were three separate objects hiding in the glare of ISON's coma.
Was ISON breaking up? Was the comet being escorted by two alien spacecraft? No. Just no.
Richard White, principal investigator for the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, explained that the image was a composite, created by averaging the data from three separate camera exposures. The three objects are just different views of Comet ISON's nucleus.
"The comet itself does not have three pieces," White wrote. "They are an artifact from adding up the separate exposures. The comet does not look the same in each exposure because both the comet and the Hubble telescope are moving during the exposure. The comet is blurred, just as a picture taken out the window of a moving car will be blurred."
Although for those that want to believe, this will probably just be part of the conspiracy. If so, don't listen to those Illuminati-NASA mouthpieces...listen to history - comets have always caused humans to start the doom-talk, so perhaps this time around let's dial back the hysteria a bit and enjoy the sky show instead? At least until high-ranking politicians start boarding rockets...